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Beijing mounts zealous crackdown on bloggers

BEIJING — These are bad times to be a Big V in China.

BEIJING — These are bad times to be a Big V in China.

“Big V”, for verified account, is the widely-used moniker for the most influential commentators on China’s growing microblog sites — online celebrities whose millions of fans read, discuss and spread their outpouring of news and opinions, plenty of which chastise or ridicule officials.

Worried about its hold on public opinion, the Communist Party has turned against them in the most zealous crackdown on the Web in years.

Police forces across the country have announced the detention of hundreds of microblog users since last month, on charges of concocting and spreading false claims that are often politically damaging.

For weeks, a torrent of commentaries in the state-run news media have warned popular opinion makers on China’s biggest microblog site, Sina Weibo, to watch their words.

This week, China’s highest court and prosecution office also issued guidelines for defining and punishing online rumours and slander. The rules gave some protection to citizens who accuse officials of corruption, but they also said a slanderous message forwarded more than 500 times or read over 5,000 times could count as a serious crime and earn convicted offenders as many as three years in prison.

Officials have described their campaign as urgent surgery to drain toxic lies from the Internet. But critics call that a pretext to tame the entire microblog world, honest as well as dishonest.

With more than 500 million registered accounts and about 54 million daily users, Sina Weibo has grown into a raucous forum, instantly spreading news and views on brief messages that can flit past censors.

Big V has become the generic name for influential voices — not all officially verified — on microblogs, especially on Sina’s site. “Weibo” means microblog in Chinese, and other rival services also use that name.

“We’re only seeing the beginning of this campaign,” said Adjunct Professor Xiao Qiang at the School of Information of the University of California, Berkeley, who studies the Chinese Internet. “This is going to last at least a few months,” he said. “The ... Big Vs will be targeted some way or another.”

Party leaders “worry that they have lost control of public opinion on the Chinese Internet”, he added. “And this round, they’ll be much harsher, and the targets will be the more influential people in the Chinese public sphere”.

The campaign is part of the efforts of Mr Xi Jinping, the Communist Party leader appointed in November, to reverse the spread of liberal ideas that challenge one-party rule, observers said.

But critics and even some supporters of the crackdown said public distrust of the Chinese state media was so tenacious that more independent voices on the Internet would survive as a source of information and ideas.

“You can intimidate people for a while, and those leading voices will be less vocal,” Mr Xiao said. “But it doesn’t mean that the government wins real credibility among people.”

The rise of microblogs has given prominent commentators a powerful and potentially lucrative platform.

“Some of them have become more influential than certain state media organs,” said Mr Bill Bishop, who publishes the Sinocism newsletter. “Weibo is so fast, and the velocity and breadth of the transmission of information is just so much greater now than it is in newspapers and even on TV.”

But the explosion of Weibo has also fed a dank undergrowth of scams and fakery. Businesses use bogus “zombie” accounts to spread paid-for messages that give a boost to clients or discredit their rivals. Other operators make money by scrubbing messages that are damaging to businesses or politicians.

The Chinese authorities have said their crackdown is directed at such abuse. The police across the country have announced the arrest of hundreds of other people accused of spreading false rumours online.

The accusations against many arrested microbloggers also have a political edge. Many other rumours called outrageously false by the government have dwelt on the sins of officials: Corruption, venality and sexual escapades.

“On Weibo, China appears as if it’s an evil country,” said Mr Wang Wen, a former newspaper editor turned university researcher who has been among the left-leaning commentators urging tightened controls on microblogs. “It’s seriously affecting China’s social stability and political governance.” THE NEW YORK TIMES

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